Every story starts somewhere … this one starts last Friday night after my kids got home from their middle school dance. They both had a great time with friends and overall had fun. The next morning my younger son said he was a bit disappointed, and when we asked why he said it was because he requested a song that didn’t get played. My older son reminded him that it wasn’t exactly ‘mainstream’, but agreed it would have been a great song for the dance.
It reminded me of something I’ve written about before – my tastes in music tend to fall off the beaten path as anyone who reads my stuff knows. But even within the context of the pop music I like I tend to find the songs least traveled.
Back in my high school days of the early 80’s Boston rock radio had a few good stations – 104 WBCN, 107 WAAF, and 94 HJY (OK, that was Providence RI, but where we lived it was also crystal clear). They would constantly have ‘themed’ weekends. And while I seldom called in with requests, I would occasionally put one in on an ‘All Request’ weekend … and I NEVER got a single request played!
Typically the station would be polite and acknowledge they weren’t going to play the song and ask me to choose a more popular song. At first I just said ‘OK’ and let them play what they wanted, but after a couple of times I challenged them – ‘hey, isn’t this an all-request weekend for this artists?’ And yet … never got one played.
Here are three songs I enjoy but only heard because I owned them:
The Police – ‘Darkness’. From the mega-hit Ghost in the Machine, this was the last song on the record and the second ballad in a row. It got little attention – in no small part due to being a down song in an up album. But the contrapuntally syncopated polyrhythms have held me in their grasp for 30 years. It was a fave of mine then, and remains my favorite Police song today.
The Who – Sunrise. When the radio station folks in 1980 thought of an ‘All Request British Invasion Weekend’ weekend, they expect to play all of Who’s Next, most of Who Are You, a bunch of songs from Tommy, Quadrophenia, Odds & Sods and Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy, as well as a sampling from their pre-Tommy years mostly focused on the songs that also appeared on the current hit movie/record ‘The Kids Are Alright’.
What they did NOT want to play was an intimate little Pete Townshend solo acoustic guitar and vocal love and adoration song called ‘Sunrise’, with the line ‘you take away the breath I was keeping for sunrise’. Beautiful song, and I have always loved how in the latter parts of the album ‘Sell Out’ you can hear fragments of ideas that would become parts of Tommy two years later. They didn’t even know this song, but obviously it wasn’t on the approved list.
Jeff Beck – Beck’s Bolero When time came for a generic ‘All Request British Invasion Weekend’, I knew what I wanted – Beck’s Bolero by Jeff Beck. It is an instrumental that was never a pop hit. Did I hear it? What do YOU think? Interestingly, I have since heard it on rock radio when they play some Jeff Beck … but back then it just wasn’t going to happen.
I write quite a bit about the shift in power over the last decade or so, but this is a reminder of something Christopher Gavula mentioned in a comment recently – centralized control has long been a factor in popular music. For those with tastes on the fringe of pop music (and yes, I do call The Who, Police, Yes, and so on popular music … sorry)
The jazz world is something different – the closest to being rejected for a song choice was when I once requested Miles Davis Bitches Brew but the DJ at WHRB (Harvard Univ Radio) said she was off in 30 and wanted to squeeze in more than one song, so I changed to Miles Sprinsville from Miles Ahead. In exchange she promised to play Bitches Brew at the same time the next morning so I’d hear it on my ride to work … and she did.
As for the song my son wanted? Let’s check it out – Ghosts and Stuff by Deadmau5: